Tukuche: Thakali Kitchen

Features Issue 18 Aug, 2010
Text by Siddharth Lama

To a trekker on the Annapurna Circuit going downhill from Jomsom, Tukuche is a quiet unwashed town of cobbled streets and quaint white houses, a few hours down the trail. This town is home to Thakali people, who have a reputation for fine hospitality and great cooking. Tukuche Thakali Kitchen, off Durbar Marg in Kathmandu, offers excellent food representative of this region.

In contrast to the bright vistas of the town, the entrance to the restaurant is a rather dim passage (between the newly opened Delicatessen and the Bentley showroom on Durbar Marg) which leads to an even darker stairway going up to the restaurant itself. New customers often find themselves almost groping their way up or pausing to let their eyes adjust to the light, and even the restaurant itself is a bit low lit for some preferences. Thankfully, there is enough light in which to conduct culinary activities. The seating style and the décor is traditional, and the extensive use of wood here evokes the atmosphere of the houses and lodges along the Kali Gandaki trail.

Started in 1997 by the Sherchan family, the Tukuche restaurant takes its name from the ancestral home of the Thakali people. Rekha Bhattachan, who runs this establishment, says that most of the people involved with this restaurant are family members tracing their ancestry to Tukuche village. Originally a much smaller place, it gained in popularity, necessitating the extension of the restaurant three and a half years ago to its current size. Still modest in size, the restaurant retains a homey feeling. The décor was handled by Rekha, assisted by her brothers, one of whom is a successful architect and the other who manufactures furniture and is also a bit of an interior designer. Together, they have given the place an authentic Thakali air.

But it’s not just about atmosphere. The key to the place is the food that is served, which, according to many patrons, tastes almost home cooked. This may seem to be a contradictory statement when referring to restaurant food, but the fact is that in Tukuche, Rekha Bhattachan and her sisters and sister-in-laws are directly involved in the overseeing and preparation of the food as well as in the procurement of ingredients. This daily personal touch has resulted in food that is not very different from what one would taste in a Thakali home. Testimony to this is the fact that almost 75 % of the patrons of this restaurant are Nepalis, many of them Thakalis themselves. Many of the ingredients used at the restaurant are also sourced from villages in the Kali Gandaki region, including Tukuche village, and this helps in lending  an authentic flavor to the preparations here.

To understand how Thakali cuisine has evolved, it is helpful to examine in brief the situation of the Thakali people.

Of Tibeto-Nepali origin, the Thakalis were originally from the area of Thak Khola in the Kali Gandaki region. Their settlements straddled the prime trade route between Tibet and the plains of India. Over centuries of trade, the Thakalis, being in an ideal place to be middlemen in this trade prospered. Even today, they are one of the more economically successful ethnic groups in Nepal. Their relative affluence early on and their access to resources, including ingredients and cooking styles from other regions, meant that they had the opportunity to develop more varied and complex dietary habits than the average Nepali. An example that illustrates this refinement is that in a traditional Thakali setting, the way food is laid on the table or on a plate must adhere to certain color combinations. A yellow item next to another item of similar hue is a no-no, and color combinations must be such that they are pleasing to the eye. These are aesthetic considerations that only arise when eating has become something more than just a sustenance activity, and has been elevated to a higher level of social activity. Thus Thakali dining is acknowledged by many who have tried it to be a surprisingly sophisticated and satisfying experience.

Ingredients that go into making Thakali food are not very different from other Nepali food, according to Rekha and her sister in law Manu, who helps in the running of Tukuche. The main difference they say is in the style of preparation and in the use of some ingredients characteristic of Thakali cooking. These include ingredients such as sukuti or dried goat meat, buckwheat, barley flour and timbur, a tangy Himalayan spice.

In terms of the food on the menu at Tukuche, one finds a wide selection of items that are typically Thakali as well as a smaller collection of items created to cater to customer demand. Usually, people who come here tend to go for the set meals, which are convenient and filling, but the other items on the menu are also worth exploring. For example, there is the Lyetpo Khu on the special menu, which is diced brain curry (for those that want to get into the mind of a mountain goat), and Phuralajiaw Churpi, or fried dried churpi (hard cheese) with powdered sugar. The Qhintee or dried sausages on the snacks menu also come highly recommended by the management. In order to really appreciate the food here, one needs to be adventurous and boldly order what you may never have ordered (or thought of!) before. Because some of the ingredients come all the way from the Tukuche village region, the more exotic items on the menu are sometimes not available, but the management tells us that they try to keep their fare up to date, supply allowing. The meat used here is exclusively from the hardy mountain goat or chicken; contrary to popular belief, yak meat, buffalo and beef are not a part of regular Thakali cuisine. An ever-present ingredient here is the Prumuchhop pre or Thakali chilly powder; should you take the trouble to shake the saltshakers on the table, you will discover this tangy powder. It adds an interesting flavor to anything from the sukuti to the fried potatoes, and is an ingredient used to prepare many of the dishes served here.

For drinks, besides the usual stuff found in city bars, there is Tukuche brandy made from apples or apricots, and Jhwoikhatte or clear spirit that is finished by heating butter in a pan, frying cooked dried rice and then pouring on the spirit to make a buttery alcoholic drink. Thakali rice wine or Phee is also a popular drink here. A lot like jand or rice wine, only much thicker, it carries a gentle punch and goes down well with the food at Tukuche.

Among the several Thakali restaurants in town, Tukuche is one of the oldest establishments offering this kind of food, and  one of the best in its class. Over their years of service, this place has gained a lot of ground in the local market. It¹s certainly a great place to experience authentic Thakali cuisine.

In January 2003, Tukuche Thakali Kitchen opened a new outlet by the name of Thakali Tukuche Café in Baneshwor (beside the Nanglo Bakery café), which caters to a slightly different dining experience and serves lighter food, but is also essentially based on the menu in Tukuche.

For Inquiries and Reservations, call Tukuche Thakali Kitchen at 4225890.